Conservation groups sent a letter to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) this week strongly urging the body not to move forward with a proposal that would likely renew the killing of female horseshoe crabs for use as fishing bait. Earthjustice sent the letter on behalf of New Jersey Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife, requesting that the public have ample opportunity to review the model upon which the proposal is based before ASMFC’s public comment period opens. On July 28, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which controls the model, denied the conservation groups’ request to obtain the model under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
"By withholding their model, regulators are showing an alarming lack of transparency," said Christian Hunt, Southeast Representative with Defenders of Wildlife. "This historic decision could permanently undermine red knot recovery efforts. At the very least, the public needs a chance to analyze the data used to justify the proposal."
The groups have previously warned that the proposed changes to the horseshoe crab Adaptive Resource Management (ARM) framework threaten to further deplete crab eggs that the red knot shorebird relies upon, which could result in an unlawful “take” of red knots under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The red knot is listed as a threatened species under the ESA, and according to a recent assessment by the Delaware Shorebird Project, its numbers remained at historically low levels in 2022.
“It is fundamentally unfair to ask the public to comment on a controversial management change when government officials won't release key information about it,” said Ben Levitan, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Biodiversity Defense Program, who submitted the letter this week. “ASMFC must allow for meaningful review of the new model before rushing the proposal toward final approval.”
In addition to the letter sent to ASMFC, the groups submitted a new FOIA request to FWS this week requesting records related to the Service’s analysis of whether the revised ARM model would result in a prohibited “take” of the red knot under the ESA. “Taking” in this context means depleting the red knot’s food supply in a manner that impairs reproduction or survival. In a recent Coastal Point article, FWS stated that the Service conducted an analysis of whether the proposed changes would result in take and found less than a one percent chance that it would result in a lower red knot stopover population. But FWS’s ESA analysis has not been made publicly available.
“Recent evidence indicates the red knot population using Delaware Bay during spring migration is declining,” said David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring for New Jersey Audubon. “The ASMFC’s intent to implement a plan that would allow for the harvest of female horseshoe crabs is reckless, given that their eggs are a critical resource for red knots.”
By proceeding with the comment period before the relevant information is publicly available, ASMFC could make a final decision on the proposal as soon as October and set new horseshoe crab bait harvest quotas for the 2023 fishing year at that time. The commission has continued to advance the proposal despite public outcry. Just this week, the Press of Atlantic City editorialized against the continued destruction of horseshoe crabs and the deteriorating conditions for migratory shorebirds.
Red knots make one of the most epic migrations in the animal kingdom, starting as far south as Tierra del Fuego and flying more than 9,000 miles to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. For most red knots, Delaware Bay is a critical resting point to replenish and renourish with horseshoe crab eggs before finishing their journeys, enabling a rapid doubling of their body mass.